#LessClassicallyBeautiful and the Backhanded Compliment

Show runner Viola Davis, star of the new ABC drama How To Get Away With Murder is breaking down many different barriers on network television. She is a woman over 40, a dark skin black woman, and not a size 0 and proving that those tagged as #LessClassicallyBeautiful are not only sexy, but also beautiful.

Part of the ShondaLand Thursday night lineup, How To Get Away With Murder, is show about a defense lawyer and who is also a law professor. So far the show has only been on for a couple of weeks. The pilot broke DVR rating records. Coming on right after Scandal, another show with a black woman lead, has made the show an instant hit.

According to the New York Times however, Davis is considered less classically beautiful:

As Annalise, Ms. Davis, 49, is sexual and even sexy, in a slightly menacing way, but the actress doesn’t look at all like the typical star of a network drama. Ignoring the narrow beauty standards some African-American women are held to, Ms. Rhimes chose a performer who is older, darker-skinned and less classically beautiful than Ms. Washington, or for that matter Halle Berry, who played an astronaut on the summer mini-series “Extant.”

This was seen as compliment by the writer. What this writer doesn’t understand that these comments still perpetuate colorism. To describe a dark-skinned black woman as less classically beautiful is just as demeaning as saying they aren’t attractive. Yes, Viola Davis being a lead on a network television show is different from Kerry Washington or Halle Berry carrying their own TV shows. Both Washington and Berry have the privilege of being both relatively lighter in complexion, straight hair, thinner noses, and slimmer bodies. While Davis features are more in line with what more black women tend to look like: dark skin, wide noses, wide lips, and curvacious.

Colorism is still a tricky conversation to have within the black community. It’s something that’s been going on since the concept of race was created. To get a better idea of the long and painful history of colorism, check out the documentary Dark Girls. It gives an in-depth look on “deep-seated biases and attitudes about skin color particularly dark skinned women, outside of and within the Black American culture.”

Many others believe this was a backhanded compliment and rightly so. Just like the whole “angry black woman” comment, Viola Davis and plenty of other black actresses spoke out against these comments, time and time again. On Twitter the hashtag #LessClassicallyBeautiful was trending with black women responding to the New York Time’s ill-advised comments.

What does less classically beautiful mean?

The term can be used to describe anyone who is not “moderately” attractive by a certain standard of beauty . White actresses like Elizabeth Moss or Kristen Schaal would be considered less classically beautiful by mainstream standards. Yet, their looks are rarely mentioned in the media. Their talent tends to overshadow their looks, thanks to their whiteness. Both Moss and Schaal are both extremely talented and beautiful women, but let’s not pretend that if they were both black they wouldn’t have the same success they have now.

Though we all know beauty is in the eye of the beholder, we know that looks play a huge role in women’s lives.

Remember the study that was done two years ago about who the most attractive woman in the world looks like?

Yup, you guessed it. She was a thin white woman, with blonde hair and blue eyes. The world is made up with over 7 billion people, many of them brown or black, yet a “scientific” study still compiles a white woman as the most attractive woman in the world. There was also another study done that has now been discredited that black women are the most physically unattractive group.

So only imagine what it’s like for a woman like Viola Davis; a talented, Oscar nominated actress who does not look like “the most beautiful woman in the world”?

The Fall 2014 TV lineup is one of the most diverse lineups we’ve seen in a while. Not only of black women as leads, but we’re starting to see more women of color leads as well. Thanks to the success of shows like The Mindy Project, we not only get to see more women of color on TV, but also more women of color behind the scenes (writing, producing, filming, etc.)

I want all women ranging from Viola Davis to Kristen Schaal to have a voice on television. These are talented, dynamic, and beautiful actresses who are bringing something new and different to a very white male dominated field. We need to scrap this idea of less classically beautiful and just say beautiful. It’s our differences that make for better television. In a media landscape where television is finally catching up to a diverse audience we still have a long ways to go.


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A writer of headlines, journalist, and part-time poet. Earning a B.A in Journalism with a concentration in both Broadcast and Political Science at SUNY Purchase, I've had the amazing experience of discovering my hatred for politics can become a solid career one day. No one really loves how dirty politics can be, but someone has to decode the glamour for what it really is. It's the social issues that really heats my engine. Education, Women's Rights, Environmental Issues, Rights for People of Color, Poverty, LGBT Rights, International Relations, are just some of the many causes I'm passionate about. Besides politics and social policies, I love discussing topics all young people love: music, films, TV shows, books, and much more. If you can talk about the Foo Fighters or Arrested Development we probably can be great friends. There's only so much I can say about myself here, so hopefully my blog will speak for itself. Currently I'm a Headline Writer for Social Media at Al Jazeera America. I reside in Brooklyn in a too small apartment off the L train.

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